Paul Wellman

All the Pretty Ponies

Polo Players Gear Up for the Prestigious Pacific Coast Open

Andy Busch’s polo team was named after his family’s ancestral dwelling in St. Louis, but Grant’s Farm Manor has very much become Santa Barbara’s home team. Busch, the great-grandson of the brewery titan Adolphus Busch, moved here 10 years ago with his wife and four children after finding it a sublime setting to pursue his passion for polo.

Busch is the patron of Grant’s Farm — meaning he pays the substantial bills to put a team of professional players together, and his reward is the privilege of playing with them. But while most patrons are amateurs who do not count against their teams’ handicaps, Busch is respectably rated as a three-goal player at age 49.

The highest aspiration of a patron at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club is to win the Bombardier Pacific Coast Open (PCO), a prestigious tournament that has existed for more than a century. Grant’s Farm is poised to make a run for the championship on Sunday, September 2, against Lucchese.

John Muse, the patron of Lucchese, scored a coup two years ago when he lured Argentine 10-goaler Adolfo Cambiaso — widely regarded as the world’s best player — to compete with his team in Santa Barbara. Think of the Angels signing Albert Pujols, but Muse’s investment has paid off from the get-go. Cambiaso has led Lucchese to two consecutive PCO titles, and at 37, he still plays with a relentless swagger astride his superbly trained polo ponies.

Busch has kissed the big trophy twice, in 1999 and 2009. In seeking his third crown, he is playing with his own Argentine fire. He recently hired eight-goaler Polito Pieres, at 26 a rising star from one of the world’s most famous polo families. “He’s going to be at 10 goals someday,” Busch predicted.

Pieres was the star of the winning team at England’s famed Gold Cup earlier this summer. Cambiaso, meanwhile, led the Dubai team to victory in the Queen’s Cup.

Joining Busch and Pieres on Grant’s Farm’s 20-goal team are Jeff Hall (rated seven goals) and Jared Sheldon (two). Hall, 32, grew up in a Texas polo family that spent summers in Santa Barbara. At 12, he took off to Argentina to learn how to play at the fastest, highest, and strongest level.

Although he is one of America’s most dynamic players, Hall has won the PCO trophy just once. “I’ve been in the finals four or five times,” Hall said. “It’s very hard to win.”

Grant's Farm's Jeff Hall (right) battles with Mansour’s Hilario Ulloa during a recent match.
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Grant’s Farm’s Jeff Hall (right) battles with Mansour’s Hilario Ulloa during a recent match.

Only four teams entered this summer’s high-goal season at the polo club, and throughout the last month, every match has been a heated battle. The Pacific Coast Open finalists were determined last Sunday, when Grant’s Farm defeated Farmers & Merchants Bank, 14-12, and Lucchese held off Mansour, 12-10.

Farmers & Merchants, led by creative nine-goaler Lucas Criado, aggressively challenged Grant’s Farm and got itself in serious foul trouble. Hall scored 11 goals, all of them on penalty shots of varying distances. “I hit it pretty hard and pretty straight,” Hall said. “I practice a lot.” It helps that his horses stay steady as he approaches the ball.

Lucchese got sparkling play from 18-year-old Santi Torres, who grew up on the Carpinteria fields, and took an 11-5 lead over Mansour in the fourth chukker. Mansour came back with five consecutive goals, and it was 11-10 midway through the sixth and final chukker. With two and a half minutes remaining, Cambiaso sent a long ball ahead to Andres Weisz, who scored Lucchese’s final goal. Hilario Ulloa, the nine-goal-rated star of Mansour, was left to lament the three penalty shots he pushed wide right.

Bob Puetz, S.B. Polo & Racquet Club general manager, felt for Mansour’s patron Ben Soleimani. “It’s an ordeal to put a team on the field — a huge commitment not only financially but time-wise,” he said. Puetz, a veteran player, came to the club in April and expresses a desire “to build on polo for the sport and the community.”

Mansour and Farmers & Merchants will play for a consolation trophy Saturday, September 1, at 1 p.m. General admission to Sunday’s 2 p.m. final will be $10.

SWIM, BIKE, RUN AND RUN: Winners of the Santa Barbara Triathlon last weekend included Max Biessmann of Irvine (long course, men); Cortney Haile of Santa Monica (long course, women); and Santa Barbara natives Andrew Maxwell and Adrienne Binder (sprint course, coed). … Goleta native Ramiro “Curly” Guillen, who had not raced since 2003 at UCSB, returned to distance running this summer, and Sunday he won the Santa Rosa Marathon in two hours, 40 minutes, and 32 seconds. His wife, Rosemary Guillen, did her first triathlon in Santa Barbara. … It’s a half marathon (13.1 miles) in distance, but a full wallop in difficulty — the Pier to Peak run starts early Sunday, September 2, at Stearns Wharf. The finish line is 4,000 feet higher at La Cumbre Peak.

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